PFL

Exclusive: Pro Futsal League looks to break into U.S. market

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There’s been no hiding the growth of soccer in the United States over the past two decades-plus. Major League Soccer has developed into an impressive entity, continually growing and attracting some of the world’s greatest talents, including David Villa and Kaká.

[ MORE: MLS expansion looking at 28 teams, says Don Garber ]

In a similar path to success, futsal — a newer, quicker variation of soccer — is seeking its opportunity to crack the U.S. soccer market with the introduction of the Pro Futsal League.

For those that may not be familiar with the game, futsal is played with five players a side on an indoor surface typically about the size of a basketball court.

Professional Futsal League game between USA and Spain in at Dr. Pepper Stars Center in Frisco, Texas, Saturday, March 14, 2015. MIKE STONE
Professional Futsal League game between USA and Spain in at Dr. Pepper Stars Center in Frisco, Texas, Saturday, March 14, 2015. PFL Commissioner Keith Tozer pictured (right). PHOTO CREDIT: MIKE STONE

A few other noted differences between soccer and futsal include — unlimited on-the-fly substitutions (like in hockey), accumulated fouls penalty shot (which results after a team concedes six fouls in a half) and kick-ins (replacing a traditional throw-in).

I recently had the opportunity to discuss Pro Futsal League with some of the organization’s executives, including Michael Hitchcock (CEO), Keith Tozer (PFL Commissioner), Rob Andrews (President of International Affairs) and Christie Nelson (Executive Director).

The league has begun its development phases and will officially launch its exhibition season in 2017. PFL — which is set to be comprised of 16 teams in various large markets across the United States — will kick off its inaugural season in 2018.

The excitement surrounding the league is unquestioned and unique because of the entities that PFL is reportedly aligning itself with. Back in February, the Dallas Morning News cited sources saying that PFL will be working closely with renowned clubs like Barcelona, Atletico Madrid, Boca Juniors and Corinthians, who will take on ownership stakes.

Here’s my full conversation with PFL’s executives:

Baseball has taken some heat over recent years about the speed of play in which the game is played. Futsal is a very fast-paced game, almost similar to basketball or hockey. What was it about the sport that intrigued you when starting PFL?

Christie Nelson, Executive Director: I was introduced to futsal almost two years ago in Milwaukee. At the time, Keith Tozer, who is now the Commissioner of the PFL and currently the U.S. Futsal National Team Coach, was hosting the France Futsal National Team in a friendly. Within minutes of the match, I fell in love with the high-octane sport. Coming from a basketball background, I was attracted to the 5-on-5 aspect and the quick pace of the game. My immediate thought was why haven’t I heard of futsal, and why is there not a professional league in North America? It is perfect for the American eye and combines the best components of hockey, basketball, and soccer.

As a sport that is still growing, how important do you feel it is to get youths involved in the game?

Christie Nelson, Executive Director: Involving children in the growth of futsal is imperative. The younger generation is the future of the sport. Children playing in youth leagues now have the opportunity to aspire to be professional futsal athletes and will also be a part of the fanbase attending matches.

Michael Hitchcock, CEO: Futsal is one way to reach into urban areas, and the PFL is committed to supporting the growth of the game in neighborhoods across North America.

Italy, but more so Spain and Brazil have been powerhouses on the international futsal stage. How does the United States reach the heights of success futsal nations such as those have experienced?

Rob Andrews, President of International Affairs: The PFL has been collecting and observing the best practices from every major futsal nation in preparation for the launch of the PFL. Building futsal in the the U.S. is crucial to members of the PFL, and we see the opportunity to reach the same heights and successes by having the best brands and premier players in the top markets in North America.

There has been discussions about the U.S. pursuing a bid to host the 2020 Futsal World Cup. We’ve seen a rise in American soccer its popularity since hosting the 1994 World Cup. How important is it for the U.S. to push for this opportunity in four years?

Michael Hitchcock, CEO: The MLS grew into what it is today with the support of U.S. Soccer over the past two decades. We are hoping to follow a similar path in the development of the PFL.

How many teams are confirmed for PFL’s launch in 2017? 2018?

Michael Hitchcock, CEO: The PFL will kick off the exhibition season in 2017 and begin the inaugural season in 2018. Sixteen teams are confirmed in NBA and NFL major markets.

What kind of allocation process does the league have or will it have in place to determine rosters moving forward? Will there be a salary cap?

Keith Tozer, PFL Commissioner: The PFL will have a draft similar to the NBA. Details regarding roster creation will be voted on by owners at the next owners meeting and will be released in the future. Players can submit a player registration form on our website to be entered into the PFL database to receive future updates and information: http://professionalfutsal.com/player-registration-form/

What does it say about the league right off the bat that you’re partnering with teams like Barcelona and Boca Juniors, given their respective histories?

Rob Andrews, President of International Affairs: At this time we cannot comment on the brands we are working with. However, being able to start a league with such iconic global brands would be unprecedented.

We’ve seen other industries in the United States attempt variations of a sport before. Arena Football is something that has tried to compete with the NFL for several years now, but has certainly been put on the back-burner by fans. What challenges does your league face in trying to cultivate a solid fan base?

Rob Andrews, President of International Affairs: This is not an American invented sport. Futsal has an almost 100 year history, with multiple countries celebrating 25 years of professional league play.

Christie Nelson, Executive Director: Currently, North America is the only continent that does not support a professional futsal league; it couldn’t be a more perfect time to start one.

There’s been a lot of talk in the past about the disconnect between soccer and futsal. Do you feel the league has an obligation to kind of tie the two together in order to bring fans to pay attention to both?

Rob Andrews, President of International Affairs: It is no secret that some of the greatest players in the world credit futsal for their development. Many people don’t know, however, that Kobe Bryant also grew up playing 5-a-side in Italy and credits it for his development into one of the greatest in NBA history.

Keith Tozer, PFL Commissioner: Playing futsal naturally develops quicker decision making, better spacial awareness, and faster acceleration that will benefit any athlete who wants to excel in any sport. Our goal with the PFL is to offer the opportunity to those players who want to stay with futsal to do so at a professional level.

What were your takeaways from the exhibitions that the league had in 2015? Additionally, how important was it to have a player like Falcao involved?

Michael Hitchcock, CEO: Since the PFL International Challenge last March, the response has been huge both internationally and domestically. After breaking the North American record in attendance for a futsal match, we know there is a market for futsal here in the USA. We have come a long way since then and look forward to what the future holds.

Christie Nelson, Executive Director: The response to having Falcão last year was so great that he will be returning for the PFL’s largest event of 2016. Details are to come mid-April about the event.

Follow @MattReedFutbol

Europa League preview: Arsenal, Chelsea debut; Red Bull Derby (of sorts)

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The Europa League group stage begins Thursday, with two London giants taking part in a relatively unfamiliar competition.

[ MORE: Full Europa League schedule ]

Both Arsenal and Chelsea have played in the tournament finals in recent years, but for the most part are Champions League mainstays.

This season, however, it’s the UEL leading one to Greece and the other to a visit from a Ukrainian side.

Both are involved in our five matches to monitor amongst the 48-team field on Day 1.

5 (tie). Villarreal vs. Rangers / Celtic vs. Rosenborg

The Old Firm rivals with plenty to prove kick off their group stages on Wednesday, in turn saying something for Scottish football.

For Steven Gerrard‘s Rangers, that means the chance to make good on their first full European tournament since the 2010-11 Europa League. They took the long way, winning four qualifying rounds to earn these nights. Now what? Perhaps their toughest test yet in Villarreal.

For Brendan Rodgers‘ Celtic, it’s an opportunity to show that while the Champions League has been a bit too rich for their blood, a Europa League group stage with Austrian, German, and Norwegian competition isn’t a problem for the best team in Scotland.

4. Arsenal vs. Vorskla Poltava

Forget the opposition: Unai Emery sees the Europa League as the opportunity to put more silverware in the halls of Arsenal HQ. From Arsenal.com:

“Every title for us is very important. In 2000, Arsenal played the final against Galatasaray but didn’t win. And also, Arsenal played the final in 2006 in the Champions League and also didn’t win. In my career, the ambition is very important for continuing to improve and continuing to achieve the objectives in my career personally and with the team. I want to play for every title going forward.”

There’s no reason to expect anything but a win for the Gunners against a team in just its second European group stage.

3. Marseille vs. Eintracht Frankfurt

Frank McCourt’s Olympique Marseille still doesn’t sound quite right, so let’s go with the manager. Rudi Garcia’s Olympique Marseille has a lot of weapons, including a trio of World Cup winners in Steve Mandanda, Florian Thauvin, and Adil Rami. Their Bundesliga visitors feature a Mexican national teamer (Carlos Salcedo) and an American (Timothy Chandler), but eyes will be trained on a Frenchman: Sebastian Heller has three goals and an assist in three league appearances this season.

2. PAOK vs. Chelsea

With all respect to Vieirinha and Amr Warda, this shouldn’t be a major challenge for Maurizio Sarri‘s men. Yes, even with Eden Hazard, Mateo Kovacic, and David Luiz being rested in London.

But it gets our circle because Sarri has called it the most difficult challenge of their group stage. BATE Borisov and MOL Vidi (formerly Videoton) are the other members of Group L. From ChelseaFC.com:

“I have seen the four matches played by PAOK in the Champions League play-offs. My staff have seen the matches of the Greek championship. I think I know everything.

“We want to play with our characteristics, to control the match with our ball possession, but I know tomorrow will be difficult. They are a good team. They have won against Basel, Spartak Moscow, they drew against Benfica in Portugal. We have to do a very good match if we want to gain points.”

1. RB Leipzig vs. Red Bull Salzburg

UEFA would prefer to avoid matches like this, even presumably one-sided ones, as two clubs owned by Red Bull square off in a meaningful competition. The pair being in the same group will be even trickier when there are chances to affect the next round fate of their brother club (The clubs aren’t technically deemed to have the same ownership, but it’s difficult to conclude the relationship isn’t a healthy one).

Tigres cruises to Campeones Cup in Toronto

(Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press via AP)
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What home field advantage?

Jesus Duenas scored twice to join a Toronto FC own goal on the score board as Tigres UANL beat the MLS side 3-1 at BMO Field in Toronto to win the the first ever Campeones Cup.

[ MORE: Europa League preview ]

Lucas Janson scored late in the match for Toronto FC.

The new competition brings together the winners of MLS Cup and Liga MX’s Campeón de Campeones in a one-off trophy tilt.

The win was a small measure of revenge for Tigres, which was knocked out of the CONCACAF Champions League after a fierce quarterfinal against TFC.

The breakthrough came via Duenas, who beat TFC’s back line to a Juninho pass. Michael Bradley showed Duenas to the back post, but Alex Bono didn’t have his angle covered and Tigres had a 1-0 with 10 minutes to go before halftime.

To add insult to injury for Toronto, who saw Jay Chapman head off the cross bar, Sebastian Giovinco had to leave the match soon after Tigres’ opener due when he injured himself trying a shot from 45 yards.

Duenas made it 2-0 from distance in the 64th minute when he ripped a partially cleared corner kick just off the shin of Nick Hagglund and inside Bono’s far post.

An Eriq Zavaleta own goal made it 3-0 for Tigres, but Toronto received a fortunate penalty kick in the 86th minute to get on the scoreboard via Janson, on loan from Tigre (no s).

Allegri wants VAR, Bonucci doubts ref vision on Ronaldo red

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Sky Sports in Italy says its lip readers confirm that Cristiano Ronaldo’s sending off Wednesday was down to tugging the hair of Jeison Murillo while the Valencia man was on the turf.

Juventus defender Leonardo Bonucci wasn’t too impressed, even after his club went on to win 2-0 in Spain.

[ UCL: Real rocks Roma, Man City falls ]

“As far as I could see, it was a pretty normal clash,” Bonucci said. “Murillo put his hands on Ronaldo first, he reacted, but these things can happen and we must be stronger than everyone and everything.

“Ronaldo was angry, of course. The referee saw what he saw – not very well – and we overcame the obstacles.”

Juventus boss Max Allegri wants to take it a step further.

Juve is no stranger to calling for VAR, and Allegri is upset that the Portuguese megastar will miss at least one more match due to the red card (and could miss his Manchester United reunion should his suspension go beyond one match). From Football-Italia.net:

“I can only say that VAR would’ve helped the referee in this decision,” Allegri said. “Going down to 10 men in the Champions League for an incident like that is disappointing. We risked losing tonight with this and we’ll miss him for the next games too.”

It all pales in comparison to the vitriol seething out of Ronaldo’s sister, who reportedly posted on Instagram that “there will be a high price” for his tears, adding that “God never sleeps.”

Arteta: Despite loss, Man City was “ready for the game”

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Mikel Arteta might have enjoyed the opportunity to sit in the hot seat for Manchester City when the Premier League champions opened their UEFA Champions League season at home to Lyon on Wednesday, but he sure didn’t like the result.

[ RECAP: Man City 1-2 Lyon ]

With suspended Pep Guardiola watching from the stands, Man City went behind 2-0 to the French visitors. The champs could muster one second half marker in a loss at the Etihad Stadium.

Arteta said he couldn’t say whether the game would be different with Guardiola on the touch line, but doesn’t think the loss comes down to his absence. From ManCity.com:

“We missed the right pass and didn’t find consistency,” he said. “We felt under threat every time we lost the ball, that can bring the confidence lower. We were ready for the game, keen to start to Champions League because the way we ended it last season really hurt.

“The players are not perfect, sometimes they have bad days, sometimes better. I can’t fault the effort. I won’t judge them because we lost.”

He’s finding more positives than his players when it comes to the day’s mettle.

“We started slowly, and we were inconsistent in the way we wanted to play,” Arteta said. “We lost too many duels. We gave the ball away in difficult circumstances and they scored twice, but after that, the reaction from the lads was superb. We tweaked a few things to control situations better and we created chances, but at this level, it wasn’t enough.”

John Stones was at the back for both of Lyon’s goals, and admitted that halftime hit the players hard.

“Really disappointing,” he said. “To concede two goals like we did is very frustrating,. We came in at half-time a bit deflated. We picked ourselves up and played a better second half but it was frustrating.”